Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
With every day that passes, the Albert Pujols era comes closer to ending in St. Louis. This has been some run — arguably only Derek Jeter has had a better one with his original team over the last two decades — and it's as hard to imagine the Cardinals without Pujols as it is the Yankees without Jeter. But the clock is ticking loudly and thus far Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak have done nothing to stifle the noise.
If anything, the negotiation that came to an end in spring training only turned up the volume, as it showed the gap between what Pujols believes he's worth (roughly $30 million a year for 10 years) and what the Cardinals are willing and able to pay him (maybe two-thirds of that).
Which side will Cardinals' fans take — the player's or the team's?
"If they want to boo, I don't care," Pujols told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"But I hope they got the right reason if they boo. … If they decide they want to boo because we didn't get a contract done, I can't control that."
Twenty-nine other teams are focused on their business, but questions about Pujols and his team are never far from anyone's mind.
It's the storyline of 2011, dominating baseball as nothing involving any one player has since a juiced-up Barry Bonds passed Henry Aaron on the career home run list.
The Cardinals are intent on getting to the World Series one more time with Pujols and manager Tony La Russa together.
But starter Adam Wainwright's season-ending elbow injury raised questions about whether they can compete with the National League Central-champion Reds, who won despite strong showings from Pujols, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter and Wainwright in 2010.
Pujols, who gained 10-and-five trade veto power last season — a threshold that passed without Mozeliak calling the question on whether Pujols could be signed to the equivalent of a lifetime contract — has said he won't agree to a trade. But if the Cardinals get off to a bad start, you better believe a lot of teams will pursue him, eager to tempt the Cardinals with real prospects over the reality of receiving only two draft picks if he leaves as a free agent.
Fans of teams like the Cubs, Nationals and Angels will debate what No. 5 would look like in one of their uniforms. There will be talk about the Pujols market being down because the Yankees and Red Sox seemingly are set with Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez, respectively, but it's foolish to rule out any team with significant resources from the Pujols derby.
Pujols is playing it cool, which isn't hard for him. He has made all the right moves since migrating from the Dominican Republic to New York City (and then on to Independence, Mo.) when he was 16. He will put up his numbers and see what happens.
"It's another season," Pujols said. "What else can it be? How else can I approach it? It's another year like it was in '01, '02, '03 … like every year since then.
"Tell me: How do you want me to approach it?"